Erudite, accessible, revelatory, absorbing and utterly compulsive!
As soon as I heard that Parks (who is, I think, a particularly fine writer on philosophical matters) had written a book re-evaluating literary criticism of the novel, I was instantly sold and frothing at the mouth, anxious to lay my hands on a copy. And so delighted to find it as an offer for review from Amazon Vine. It was the erudite Victoria Addis, once more, on her absorbing A Hermit’s Progress blog, who alerted me to The Novel a survival skill – see her excellent review
I finished this a few days ago, in a whirl of underlining, notes-to-self and fizzing with excitement. Was it as wonderful as my expectations were telling me. Oh yes, and far more
I don’t know whether it is zeitgeist, or what, but for an increasing while I’ve been aware that my appreciation of novels has little to do with anything I was taught about ‘lit-crit’ and its coolness in my long ago sojourn in academia. Instead, what obsesses me is ‘the voice’ of the author. And the relationship that voice has with me, as reader.
‘Voice’ for sure has something to do with style, but what I am feeling for is something behind the use of language and its ability to make me see fresh. (what I think of as ‘poetic sensibilities’ – the eschewing of cliché, the ability to wake me into the world and engage properly) What I want is to be in some way arrested by the writer, spun round to face them, and have an engagement with their particular humanity. I’m wedded to ‘the arts’ as being awakeners, being transformative – what I want is to be CHANGED in some way, to engage in relationship with the work of art, so that curiously, it feels as if I have entered into a dynamic response, something which is discriminating mind, affected and affecting heart, visceral gut instinct, and, overall, something transpersonal. I’m after a response which is absolutely subjective, my response. Having total validity to me alone, because of who I am, and the way in which the particular writer, like any other particular individual, speaks, or does not speak, connects or does not connect with me. My interest is in the relationship – this writer, this reader – how and why will this particular connection happen. And how and why might other readers connect with this writer. ‘Objective’ assessment is less interesting to me – in some ways, this is always an illusion the observer is always a part of the experiment, at least at a quantum level.
So…….long preamble, what does this have to do with Parks?
What used to be called “Biographical Fallacy” is a dismissive view of literary analysis which connects the writer and his/her life to their works. Lit-crit has focused more on different strands – ‘in the world’ strands – criticism from a Marxist perspective, a feminist perspective, for example, or on microscopic textual analysis.
Parks began to sing seductively and compellingly to this reader, setting out his approach to a different, enhanced ‘biographical’ way of engaging with the writer, the work, the reader, and all connections between them
The novel, then, is not some magically separate art object entire unto itself, but something plucked from the flow of a life. The reader encounters the author through what he has written and a relationship is established, one that will not be entirely distinct from the kind of relationships the author seeks in his life, or that readers form in theirs…………When we open a novel, as with any encounter, we move into an area of risk
Parks’ approach to lit-crit is connected with systemic psychology, family dynamics, and heavily influenced by a friend of his, Italian psychologist Valeria Ugazio. The two discuss each others’ fields, and clearly there is a lot of intellectual cross-pollination.
What Parks does, with four major authors he examines – Joyce, Hardy, Lawrence, Dickens, is to look at formative influences, family dynamics, and, as it were, the story, the super-objective (as well as subtext) of emotional tone and dynamic engaged in. A kind of family food, in other words, which will be expressed through the individual writer and reader. So, for Joyce, there is a winner/loser competitiveness, for Dickens, belonging/unbelonging and, for both Hardy and Lawrence, different approaches along the polarity of fear and courage.
Parks also puts himself under this microscope, and had me jumping joyously precisely because I identified a dynamic of my own – the sense of good/bad and worthy/unworthy becoming ever more refined. He talks feelingly about the idea of reading itself being (or needing to be) worthy and transformative. Parks was a ‘son of the manse’ as it were, so brought up in an idea of the power of the word. Or at least The Word. This invests language and literature with huge power. Parks was aware of ‘good literature’ and ‘bad literature’ – and found in literature, he was particularly attracted to where the certainties of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters and stories were not presented black or white, but
books that returned life to the great confusion I always felt it was
I didn’t grow up in any sort of overt religious space, but I did grow up in a home where the transformation and the transpersonal connectivity had been absorbed from a kind of pan-religious view and art was become the place where transformation happens.
it did seem to me that novels were the kind of space where one needed to be free to explore the most difficult things,….It is precisely when we intensely disagree with a book, or when we feel that a character is acting in a way that is quite incredible to us – that we should begin to wonder whether this is mere incompetence (quite possible of course) or whether it alerts us to a whole different way of conceiving of the world and positioning oneself in it
Each reader, of course, will find their own point of resonance in this book, what Parks is asking the reader to do IS to explore themselves, to reflect and actively engage as they read.
For me, there was gold, not glitter, on every page.
I have one criticism, not enough to reduce any star rating – it is all (with a small nod to Virginia Woolf) an examination of the ‘male literary giants’ However, as the author, a man, perceives his world through his masculine embodiment, and is of course stressing that the reader should be aware they are responding out of their own individual (embodied, of course) being, it feels dishonest of me to ‘expect’ the engagement with writers to be with those embodied as female. Parks explored writers who spoke strongly to HIM.
I mentioned at the start, how much I appreciate Parks’ philosophical, reflective views – see my equally admiring view of a previous work of his Teach Us To Sit Still a book about much much more than Parks own painful medical problem, and which takes in fascinating and reflective stuff about the Italian language, translating and translators and the interface between mind and body.
Finally, and most challengingly, for me, Parks dares to wonder IS ‘great literature’ always transforming and morally/ethically something which elevates and enhances us. Great literature can also come from a place which preaches a kind of unhealthy despair – and I can’t deny that part of my obsession at one stage of my life with Hardy, a wonderful writer, of course, was with the darkness and despair of his characters. No wonder the generally optimistic, expansionist Victorians were made so uneasy by him – it wasn’t just the sexuality and sexual desires of his females which were untenable, it was that despair. I truly was a literary child of ‘the Romantics’ ‘half in love with easeful death’ – a strong strain of melancholy in my nature still resonates to the idea that transformation comes through suffering. Reading much literature of great suffering in my teens (oh, those Russians!) happened because the suffering, as much as the transformation, drew me. At least I have a sense, these days, when I need to back off from the intensity and the transformation and read equally brilliant, but more skippingly optimistic fare!:
Amid all the pieties that art is always worthy and above all worthy of funding, that the world needs stories, regardless of what kind of stories, let us stay focused on the real effect that reading and writing has on us. Let us understand the malaise it came out of and the malaise we bring to it. Plato banished poets from his republic. He felt they were noxious. Plato was not a fool. I will not suggest we do the same. I love reading novels; but let us beware, or rather be aware. Dickens can be harmful. Hardy can be harmful. Joyce can be harmful. I admire them all,. We must defend ourselves
Parks’ book, brilliantly, does what I want from a book. It has sent me away arguing uncomfortably with myself. It is a book whose surface I have scratched, no doubt missing much – as the author says, we come to our reading from our own sensibilities. You will have a different read from me!